Saturday 30 November 2013


(Ruairí Robinson, 2013)

One of those genre films that plays mainly like a compendium of memorable moments from other genre movies, this lowish budget sci-fi horror just about has enough merit to stand alone as an efficient piece of pulp hokum. That is mainly down to director Robinson, whose style is tough, direct and pleasingly classical, together with an impressive cast in roles that seem underwritten.
The plot focuses on a group of astronauts entering their last 24 hours stationed on a Mars base where they collect samples and conduct experiments. They are pretty stock types: Elias Koteas is defined by the fact that he is the leader, Liev Schreiber is the closest thing to a stock hero, with his square-jawed insistence on always doing the right thing and his heroic flaw, Romola Garai is the "normal" human being among them, Olivia Williams is the cynical, grumpy bitch, Johnny Harris the weak coward who you know will fold at the worst possible moment, their other colleagues even more forgettable.
Well, of course that last sample-collecting excursion goes wrong, and astronauts are turned into zombies, attacking their friends with power tools and anything else near at hand while the dwindling survivors desperately defend themselves inside besieged labs and tunnels. There is much business in airlocks and worry about spacesuits, and the practicalities of life on Mars - energy sources, dust-storms etc - are dealt with cleverly.
Robinson handles the scares well enough, but it never feels different enough, or distinctive enough to make that sufficient. The early scenes suggest Alien in their concentration on a group of colleagues just doing a job in an extraordinary environment, but once the genre make-up changes, the main influence appears to be John Carpenter's near-perfect The Thing, where paranoid, terrified professionals turn on one another and the dread steadily mounts. But The Last Days on Mars is nowhere near as good as those films, even when it finds the right pitch and tone as its flawed, frightened characters struggle to deal with what is happening.
The cast make these scenes work, and the film is satisfyingly bleak in its unsentimental equanimity about disposing of characters, and has a nicely ambiguous ending. With the right script, Robinson could do good work in genre cinema. This ain't the right script.

Tuesday 26 November 2013


(Jamie Linden, 2012)

Gathering together a genuinely impressive cast for his debut as writer-director, Linden tells a loose, modest, at times extremely charming story in the same vein as The Big Chill and The Return of The Secausus Seven and Beautiful Girls, returning a bunch of old friends to their hometown for a Highschool Reunion a decade on and observing the ensuing emotional revelations and collisions with a gentle, affectionate eye.
In doing so, he goes for broad types, and so we have Chris Pratt, stealing most of the laughs as the ex hellraiser and bully, now somewhat gone to seed as the suburban father of two, Justin Long and Max Minghella as the ex-Geeks still in love with the beauty queen (Lynn Collins), Brian Geraghty bringing his new wife who is shocked to discover that he acted like a black guy throughout Highschool, while most of the emotional ballast is carried by Oscar Isaac as the rock star still in love with the one who got away (Kate Mara) and Channing Tatum, who has not seen his first love (Rosario Dawson) since their traumatic split ten years before.
There are lovely moments here of universal humanity; a few big laughs and a couple of good musical sequences. But Linden always seems more comfortable with the romcom elements; and the film comes most vividly to life during the scenes between the excellent Isaac and Mara. The moment when he sings  his big hit single for karaoke at a late night dive bar (which she has never heard) and she realises it is about her is beautifully acted by Mara. The cast are the films real glory, lending it a classy finish which it perhaps does not deserve.

Sunday 24 November 2013


(Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

There's a long, sensational sequence in Brian DePalma's Mission To Mars where two astronauts attempt a risky, complicated manoeuvre while on a spacewalk. DePalma films it in long takes, his camera emphasising the immensity of the cosmos around his tiny characters.
Gravity takes that sequence and stretches it out until it fills the entire film - one extended survival set-piece, filled with intense moments of peril and superbly orchestrated spectacle.
Cuarón demonstrated an ability to utilise quite unbelievably long takes without sacrificing any of his storytelling abilities in his last film, the magnificent Children of Men, and here he pushes that even further, telling this story in a lengthy series of single shots, his cgi-assisted camera looping and circling through space around his astronauts as they scramble desperately to hold onto life in a place where there is literally nothing to hold onto.
The story opens with a brief procedural section as we observe three astronauts on a spacewalk hundreds of kilometres above Earth. Matt (George Clooney, his affable confidence put to great, unexpectedly moving use) zips around with a new jet-pack, amusing Houston (the voice of Ed Harris in a double reference to both The Right Stuff and Apollo 13) with oft-told anecdotes, while Ryan (Sandra Bullock) struggles with the nausea that comes with zero gravity and the installation of her own technology onto a satellite. A few minutes in, everything goes wrong. A destroyed Russian satellite has created a chain reaction and a field of debris is approaching in orbit, travelling at thousands of miles an hour. When it hits, only Ryan and Matt survive, and they need to use his jetpack to make it to the International Space Station, a hundred miles away. But the debris field is coming back around, and theres no guarantee they'll be able to get off the ISS once they get there.
What it boils down to is a grim, determined struggle for survival against horrible odds, which Ryan must overcome alone as one problem is succeeded by another, then another, each of them arriving with an awful feeling of inevitability.
So for all the brilliance of its technical achievement and its unique evocation of a world seldom seen with this sort of vivid realism in cinema, it is the smallest, most human dimension which registers most powerfully here. Ryan develops as a character through her actions, her ingenuity and refusal to give up, her essential, moving humanity, meaning that the audience is rooting for her from very early on.
But this is also a film about light, about the odd quality of the light in space, where it bounces off the luminous globe hanging nearby, where it feels unfiltered and pure. And about space, in both senses, the stars and cosmos and how beautiful they are, but also about how we perceive the space around us, all our certainties torn away by the infinite abyss of zero gravity, no up or down, everything around. Lubezki's photography is beautiful, and the ultimate tribute to the elegance of his and Cuarón's methodology is that after a while you forget to notice it and just focus upon the story. The long takes just become the way the story is told until something breathtaking happens - the destruction of the ISS is a truly stunning sequence, filled with moments which seem like they can not possibly be topped - until they are; and these scenes are anchored, as always, by Bullock's fine performance.
The camera spends an inordinate amount of time centimetres from her face, inside her helmet - among other things, Gravity is a fine exploration of how claustrophobia and agorophobia can co-exist - and she responds with an unusually subtle performance. Ryan is a character who hides her emotions, and so her implosion and recovery are harder to to read, but Bullock makes sure they're there, and Cuarón emphasises a few with zero gravity as a hook: making her tears float towards the camera, for instance. He also posits her as a sort of everywoman, using her as an element in the frame for a foetal shot and for another final shot likewise evoking Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, where her rise from the primordial ooze suggests nothing so much as man's evolution to a race able to fly among the stars...
Gravity, then, may be thematically slight, even modest, but Cuarón knows exactly what he wants to achieve, and he makes everything about this film work. It is taut, beautifully made in every particular, and probably the best pure rollercoaster ride we've seen in a few years.

Tuesday 19 November 2013


(Ridley Scott, 2013)

Just like No Country For Old Men, the last dark Tex-Mex thriller written by Cormac McCarthy, The Counsellor is plotted like a boilerplate action thriller from the late 80s. Double-crosses, shady middle-men, emotionless contract killers stalk this neo-Western landscape, mingling with the "normal" people foregrounded by the story.
In this case Michael Fassbender plays the titular (nameless) hero, investing in a massive drug shipment from Colombia via the Mexican cartels alongside his associate Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). But Reiner's mysterious girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is making her own moves, which result in the wrath of the cartels descending on everybody. Suddenly the Counselor, always so self-assured, is desperately trying to survive and protect the woman he loves, the innocent Laura (Penelope Cruz). But the cartels are an inescapable evil, and nobody gets out of this story clean.
McCarthy's theme is the existence of evil, our relationship with and perception of it, the way it can seem unreal until it lands in our lives in a splatter of blood, implacable and unyielding, and nothing we care about means anything any longer, and Scott does that theme justice, and then some.
As such, this is a pitch black nightmare of a film, dressed up in designer threads, full of beautiful cars and magnificent houses and its starry cast, but keening a mournful, insidious death-song under its breath. As the cartels - drawn out by a coincidence after the Counselor performs a simple favour for the son of a client, a rather unsubtle statement on the nature of chance in the cosmos - close in, McCarthy's thesis becomes obvious. Evil is real, inescapable, utterly corrupting. There is no escape, no bargaining, no heroic rescue or confrontation.
The journey taken by Fassbender's character is dreadful, his fate devastating, and the actor - always so committed - makes us feel every step of his descent until he is choked by his own despair. Early on he is rather the straight man, moving from one long, metaphor-laden conversation with a colourful supporting character (the likes of Bruno Ganz and Toby Kebell each take a scene) to another as McCarthy nudges at his themes and suggests ideas. Later on, it becomes clear that this is the film, its story mainly told in long dialogue scenes wherein people philosophise and Fassbender tries to keep up.
All the while Ridley Scott keeps it looking slick and occasionally stunning, capturing the outskirts of Santa Fe with a dusty grittiness and finding his characters swimming in their excess and glamour. The actors make McCarthy's often baroque, overwritten dialogue work. Pitt and Bardem do especially well with their monologues, and only Diaz slips at all, her Malkina a touch one-noted and cartoonish.
But then as written she is a very pulp character, the uber-capable femme fatale, the whore to Cruz's Laura, very much the flawless Madonna; and I think it would take an extremely strong actress at the peak of her powers to bring such a creation convincingly to life.
For all its thematic baggage, this is still a thriller, and Scott throws in a couple of thrilling action scenes to buoy up the talkier passages. But it is the talky passages, direct from McCarthy's script, that really stick. Two days later this film is still with me. That would be recommendation enough, but this is a superb film; provocative, fascinating and powerful, beautifully made and with its own ideas.

Sunday 17 November 2013


(Drew DiNicola & Olivia Mori, 2012)

Big Star are the cult American band, virtually unknown while they existed (though each of their records was glowingly reviewed) but developing a devout following of obsessives throughout the 80s and 90s until their status changed, and they now seem one of the most influential bands of the last few decades of rock music. That in itself wouldn't make for much of a film, but the fact that they were a fascinating mixture of personalities, and emerged from Memphis, a complex and interesting city in its own right, and one absolutely essential to the history of American popular music, makes their story a lot more enthralling. Then there is the music: DiNicola and Mori are wise enough to know that every ten minutes or so they need to stow the talking heads and just let the music tell the story - then Big Star do the rest, and they do it superbly.
Formed by Memphis rich kid Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops wunderkind Alex Chilton in the early '70s, Big Star emerged seemingly fully formed with the sublime Number One Record. The music on that album is almost perfect - exciting, muscular and precise, its melancholy heart jostling with an exhilarating appreciation for the possibilities inherent in the dynamics of rock music. It didn't sell. Bell, depressed by the way most of the credit went to Chilton, left the band, and Chilton drove them on to the even better second album, Radio City, before a shrinking line-up staggered through excess and self-indulgence to record their dark and fractured Third/Sister Lovers. After that Chilton squandered his talent in a series of jokey provocations, Bell tried in vain to get a deal and ended up working in a restaurant, and the legend of Big Star grew.
This film details the lifespan of the band, features lengthy interviews with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, makes excellent use of some fine archive photos, and devotes a long time to the lives of the principals after Big Star ended. The recent reunion tours are depicted as a nice little reward to Chilton and Stephens, years after the fact, and a line of rock critics queue up to explain quite why they never had the success they deserved even as the film does a solid job of explaining the promotional and distribution issues responsible.
The early death of Bell - in a car accident at 27 - and Chilton's death in 2010 make this a story with two ghostly absences at its centre, though a couple of wry Chilton radio interviews feature, and producers, engineers, relatives and friends fill out many of the crucial details of the story. It is a sad story, really, one of potential left unfulfilled and thwarted ambition, but it is also full of humour and fascinating people.
It is never depressing, chiefly because the music is so good. For all that some time is devoted to Bell's issues with Christianity and his sexuality, every time a Big Star song plays loud, everything feels just fine. Such is the power of great art.

Wednesday 13 November 2013


(Alan Taylor, 2013)

The success of the Marvel project - a vast, overarching series of interlinked blockbusters starring the companies most famous characters (with the exception of the X-Men and Spider-Man, owned by rival studios) has begun to sink into the films themselves. The Avengers was such an enormous success that there is a winning feeling of confidence flowing through the two post-Avengers Marvel movies; Iron Man 3 and now Thor: The Dark World. If Kenneth Branagh's original film had the difficult job of introducing a fiddly concept to the general public, Taylor's film dives headlong into the complex mythology of the character and his world, presuming that they will already like and know the character enough to go with it.
So this film is a fast-paced romp through the sci-fi, fantasy and super-hero genres; tremendously assured in its world-building, layering detail onto our understanding of Asgard and the nine realms while awkwardly positioning a familiar plot involving the death of the universe due to an ultimate weapon into place. Christopher Eccleston, largely wasted, plays Dark Elf Malekith, very much a Star Trek villain in the wrong universe, seeking the Aether, an ancient substance that can transform matter into dark matter. This brings him into contact with his old enemies on Asgard, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his Warriors Three have been striving to bring peace to the nine realms after the actions of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in the first film and The Avengers. Then there is Thor's love interest from the first film, Jane Foster (Nathalie Portman) still lovesick for the Asgardian in London, where she stumbles across a strange red substance...
While the spectacle is a given, what works well in the two Thor films is the humour, twinkling away at the ridiculousness of the concepts, but never making fun of them. This is a big part of the appeal of Hemsworth's performance - he is charismatic, but funny about it, charmingly aware of himself - but also of the film itself. The way Foster is introduced - on an awkward date with Chris O'Dowd, asking about her "guy trouble" and nicely oblivious to the fact that the guy is a Demi-God - is a good example of this. Thor crumpling himself into a car and jealously asking about this rival (Fosters response: "Seriously?") extends the joke, and the lightly "realistic" response of many smaller characters to the outsized events occurring around them frames the action in a pleasingly ironic light.
Yet it still works very nicely as pulp. The fight scenes are plentiful and pleasurable, the design and effects making this version of Asgard even more expansive than the one we saw in the original film. The smaller Asgardian characters - Rene Russo's Frigga and Idris Elba's Heimdall, particularly - are given great action beats, while Hiddleston's Loki gets to strut his stuff. He and Hemsworth have great chemistry, and the decision to team them up is a solid one, giving the film a very different dynamic.
Of course it all comes down to the usual super-hero bullshit: destruction of property, a one vs one fight involving huge punches, and a final powerful effort. But it's always staged well, and that Marvel confidence sells it.